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Wisconsin Spotlight | May 13, 2020

MADISON — The U.S. unemployment rate last month hit a staggering 14.7 percent, the highest rate since the Great Depression.

Nearly 21 million jobs disappeared from the U.S. economy. More than a half million Wisconsinites have been forced to the virtual unemployment line since mid-March, when Gov. Tony Evers issued his stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many Wisconsinites are struggling to pay their mortgages on their homes.

But the dire numbers haven’t stopped the Madison School District from forging ahead with two costly referendums this fall.

The Madison School Board could decide as early as next month to ask voters — many of them cash-strapped — to approve a $317 million facilities referendum and a $33 million operating referendum.

It would be a significant ask for Madison taxpayers — about $320 more per year in additional property tax bills (on an average district home valued at about $300,000). The owner of an average assessed home in the school district paid $6,789 in total property taxes last year.  

The board had been poised to put the spending questions on the spring election ballot before the pandemic hit. While Board President Gloria Reyes expressed concerns about the number of people who have lost their jobs, most members said the district should go ahead with the “investment,” according to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal.

“These are not things I think we should be putting off,” board member Ali Muldrow said during an online Operations Work Group meeting, the newspaper reported. “We are talking about the integrity of our district.”

About $280 million of the proposed $317 million facilities referendum would be marked for renovations and repairs at the districts four main high schools. The district’s to-do list could include more than $1.2 million for solar projects. More money could be targeted for electric-vehicle charging stations and “mindfulness spaces” for students and staff.

Racine taxpayers in April — by the narrowest of margins — approved a $1 billion school referendum. The bond issue’s five-vote victory, however, is being challenged in court.

A group calling itself the Honest, Open and Transparent (HOT) Government says the recount effort raised significant concerns.

If the vote ultimately stands, Racine Unified School District will collect a total of $1 billion more than its state-imposed revenue cap for the next 30 years.

Curiously, just days before the election, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both Democratic presidential candidates at the time, endorsed the referendum.

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